As the last performer at BET’s 2011 Black Girls Rock! awards show last month, Mary J. Blige took the stage, donning her classic look: a black wool fedora, tucked low and cocked to the side, revealing one eye heavy with a premature wisdom that comes only with singing through a lifetime’s worth of pain.
She roared into “My Life,” the title track from her sophomore album, which marked a breakthrough in her career and for hip-hop soul. The song, a bluesy call to tackle adversity head on, brought the multigenerational crowd — from 17-year-old new urban songstress Elle Varner to the iconic Angela Davis — to their feet.
“I love you ladies to death,” Blige told the audience over howling applause at the end of the performance. But her devotees already knew that. Her till-death-do-us-part affinity for her fans is reciprocal, evidenced by her ability to stay relevant for nearly two decades. It’s also proof positive that they are eagerly anticipating her 10th studio album, My Life II: The Journey Continues, set for release on Nov. 21.
The encore is only fitting, since her life’s journey is worth documenting. Blige’s rise from a talented but troubled around-the-way girl to an R&B icon might baffle critics who remember her from the ’90s. Ironically, the life experiences — substance abuse, depression and a tumultuous romance with K-Ci from Jodeci — that gave birth to her deep, endlessly relatable lyrics were the same experiences that caused many missed appearances and botched live performances.
It was those moments that colored her career after the release of My Life in 1994, resulting in the overblown and widely circulated perception of Blige as a horrible singer. Her fans seemed to care not: My Life sold more than 3 million copies. Certified triple platinum. It was clear that what Blige gave her fans was more valuable to them than a pretty voice and perfect pitch.
For black women in the inner city who knew Blige’s life experiences — growing up in the projects without a father, and everything that circumstance can bring with it — My Life offered them therapy. It gave them the kind of comfort that comes only with knowing they weren’t alone. Blige sang of the hard-to-digest reality of black womanhood and brilliantly laced it with the possibility of healing. It was the perfect cocktail of hope, and her fans drank it up.